When squirrels have babies in autumn and now in spring, sometimes those babies fall out of the nest. Their mothers often retrieve them, but not always. They might be eaten by a hungry coyote, hawk or cat. Or they might be found by humans.
Even the most well-intentioned human will have a hard time meeting the very specific needs of a baby squirrel, and in fact, it’s illegal in Washington to try. That’s where Squirrel Refuge comes in.
Squirrel Refuge, founded in 2010, is a nonprofit licensed by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to rehabilitate injured squirrels and other small mammals – chipmunks, opossums, rabbits and the like. It’s one of about 30 licensed wildlife rehabilitators in Washington, and the only one in Clark County.
Sharon and Michael Bacon took over operation of Squirrel Refuge from founder Jackie Marsden about four years ago. Marsden operated it from her Vancouver home until she moved to Oregon.
The Bacons, both retired, devote themselves full-time to the refuge, which they run out of their Orchards home.
“This is our life and we really enjoy it,” Sharon Bacon said. “I call us a big little rescue. We don’t have a facility, but we take in a lot of animals.”
It takes training to effectively help injured wild animals without further harming them. The state Department of Fish and Wildlife cautions against interfering with wildlife. Animals often leave their young alone for hours while they forage.
“The only time you should even consider intervening in a wild animal’s life is if it is clearly sick or injured – or if you are certain the parent is dead,” according to the agency’s website. “In those cases, always consult with a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.”
For small mammals around here, that’s Squirrel Refuge (360-836-0955), which is able to successfully rehabilitate 98 percent of the hundreds of animals it takes in a year.
The Bacons’ family room serves as the intake office. The Bacons give squirrels basic medical care but will take them to a veterinarian for complex injuries. In some cases, the squirrels are too bad off to rescue, and must be euthanized. Usually, though, the Bacons are able to care for the injured or baby squirrels until they grow or recover enough to be transported to Lisa Biffle’s 5 acres north of Camas.
Biffle, a longtime refuge volunteer, offered to provide space for the “squirrelarium” – an enclosure that houses as many as 50 squirrels at a time – when a volunteer in Salmon Creek could no longer host the recovering menagerie.
“I’ve always had a little hobby farm,” Biffle said. “I knew I had the perfect spot.”
About eight volunteers built a new 16-by-16-foot enclosure at Biffle’s place by working weekends from November through February.
As Michael Bacon entered the enclosure on a recent afternoon, squirrels scurried to gather the nuts he offered. Biffle found a source for discounted hazelnuts not deemed fit for human consumption, but perfectly fine for squirrels. The refuge goes through about 600 pounds of nuts a year, Sharon Bacon said. Volunteers also donate lettuce, apples and other produce to round out the squirrels’ diet. (Melanie, an opossum in the refuge’s care, is particularly fond of grapes.)
Once squirrels are rehabilitated, which can take a few months, they are released into the wild, which in this case means the woods on Biffle’s property. A few choose to stick close to little squirrel houses perched there.
The Bacons calculate that it costs $150 to raise one baby squirrel until its release, assuming it has no medical complications. People who find baby squirrels often try to feed them cow’s milk or baby formula, which makes them sick. The special formula for feeding baby squirrels costs $240 for a bucket, and the refuge goes through about 20 buckets a year, Sharon Bacon said.
The refuge’s annual budget is typically between $15,000 and $20,000, but the pandemic has taken a financial toll.
About 80 percent of Squirrel Refuge’s budget came from a program at Sunlight Supply Amphitheater in which volunteers work concession stands during concerts. COVID-19 safety precautions shut those down last season.
At the same time, the pandemic increased demand for the refuge’s services.
“Because people were home last year and taking walks, they found more babies on the ground,” Sharon Bacon said.
The refuge has turned to fundraising through social media and T-shirt sales. It hasn’t been enough to cover the loss so far, although the refuge hopes donations will keep coming.
The Bacons dream of someday creating an education center that would be able to take in a greater variety of animals.
When people alert the refuge to larger injured wildlife, the refuge must quickly find another organization licensed to care for them. Squirrel Refuge works closely with other rehabilitators, including Odd Man Inn, in Washougal just across the Skamania County line.
“We have taken in a few fawns, baby skunks, river otter and a 10-month old coyote. They were all transferred to other facilities,” Sharon Bacon said. “But this is something we’d like to be able to do here in our county.”